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28 January, 2010

Backroads: 155

About a minute south of 48 degrees, at a place where the Columbia makes a radical hook northward, the river and Grand Coulee converge. Finned and footed creatures have followed these natural paths ever since water fluid and frozen gouged them out of the Plateau. After an overland trek from Omak on the Okanogan to the Columbia (a section I've not yet traveled), route 155 lets the wheeled, combustion-assisted traveler follow these ancient trails.

The furthest north I've been on 155 is the Chief Joseph longhouse, not quite to Nespelem, about a couple of miles north of where the Ponderosa pines begin these days. Further south still is where the road meets the river, heading upstream to Grand Coulee Dam, behind which Lake Roosevelt stretches forever. 155 clings to the slopes above the river, which hides in fog sometimes and glints in the sun othertimes.

Traveling that way last week, sun and clouds and fog switched off every few minutes. The landscape there has a certain jumpiness on a geologic scale, as well. Glacial erratics, big boulders picked up and dumped during the Pleistocene, dot the hills north of the river, opposite which a broad plain attempts to reach the horizon.

As you leave the Colville Reservation and the Columbia, threading through the towns of Grand Coulee the town and Electric City, you emerge in Grand Coulee the landform, the trench ripped through hundreds of feet of basalt when glacial lakes burst and needed an outlet. Cliffs adorned with multicolored lichens stand well apart, but in many places most of the valley floor is covered with water, Banks Lake, a 'reclamation' project by which rich hunting and gathering grounds were submerged and agriculturalists could draw irrigation water. Hugging the east side talus, knifing through Columbia basalt when need be, Route 155 ensouthens itself.

Though the landscape looks like the dry West, water spills in from the flats above, seeps from the cliffs, and bubbles up from below. Steamboat Rock, which looks like it should be in a southwestern desert, is nearly surrounded by water. Sometimes gulls fly over, laughing in disbelief at their good fortune in the dry interior. Higher up, google mappers and other snoopers ogle the earth's surface. Search 'steamboat rock state park wa' in google maps, and in sat view you see a rainbow sunburst north of the rock, at least until they update the imagery. A proper blogger would link to this view, but I won't. I'm a blatherer, and have no time for such shepherding.

Now technically, 155 stops at the south end of Banks Lake, where the east walls of the canyon fall back and stretch into a plain, miles of settlement basin off to the side of the big floods, but a flood like Missoula cannot be dissipated so easily. the modern roadmap replicates what happened when the straight shot now filled by Banks passed this basin: 155 jags into 2 west for a couple miles, then drops into a long southward arc on what we call 17, but like 155 is just the Grand Coulee passage. After Dry Falls, a chain of lakes descends, but since the Columbia descends elsewhere and this part of the Coulee is un-damned, no river roars. The southernmost water before Grand Coulee spilt itself into a plain capacious enough to tame it is called Soap Lake, where suds scud across the wind-sept surface.

And here the coulee road becomes something else, a series of straight lines traversing squares enclosing irrigation circles. No teasing talus skirts, no chartreuse basalt columns, no flood-ripped canyon walls. Sure, it's better to follow 17 on down toward Moses Lake, more or less on the main flood channel, especially given the piss stench west of the fields west of Ephrata on Route 28. But avoiding urea-stink isn't quite the same thing as racing down the coulee, heading down the 155.

09 January, 2010

Ascent of a Man

I am the luckiest boy in the land. Sometimes I get to climb--trees, boulders, low cliffs for the most part--and it counts as work. A perch which reveals a site to the camera, a cave commanding a closer look-see, a ledge leading to more human habitat. The missions vary, but the fun is the same, my monkey self grins for the sheer joy of the climb, my crowness anticipates some fine shiny object up top. Meanwhile wheeling high above, a raven chukles at the teeniness of my ground-bound ascent.

This week I climbed a few boulders at the behest of my inner meerkat, who needed a look around. But the best climb was up a steep stream. It was work-related in the sense that it would give me an overview of the Deer Creek valley, but I didn't expect any finds amid scoured granite scree, and at least part of the allure was the frozen waterfall.

More clamber than climb, with a stable bed of dry boulders, the ascent was a piece of cake, safe even. A rational and just god might reserve the best rewards for the greatest efforts and epiphanies for the worthy, but I got my shiny objects anyway. The pool below the waterfall was a frenetic merangue, tossing froth and splash around its edges, which at 2000' elevation this time of year means ice. Encasing twig and boulder alike in rippling crystal, stalactiting from branches: ice. And on boulders in the splash zone: multitudes of marbles, cornlike phalanxes of kernels, thousands of little globs of ice stuck together. I imagined them as splashes frozen in mid-air and cemented to the boulder by the miasma of fine frozen spray.

These little globes, each a mirror and a fisheye lens, all more or less the same size but each unique, dazzling and befuddling. Thousands of suns and skies reflected on bulgy little surfaces, lens stacked on stygmatic lens, images of stone crystals refracted, distorted and flipped through each layer. General focus was impossible and isolating one globule among the multitude was nearly so, such was the optic trickery. Somehow the accumulation of thousands of well-defined iceballs, each a perfectly clear lens and polished mirror, added up to an impressionist effect.

Enough of the stone was dry to make reaching the top of the falls possible without having the climb the ice itself, but on either side of the torrent flowed a cascade of ice. From far below, I gazed on what I thought was a wide fall, but at the base pool it was clear that the most of it was ice, a snapshot of a fall stalled for the winter.

Above the top now and moving like a bug, limbs akimbo and body low, I moved closer to the lip, wanting to see the top of this rampart, to look down. And sprawled there, legs and belly laid on dry stone so my shoulders and head could crane out over the drop, I saw that maybe my fuzzy impression from afar had not been so far off. In the channel there seemed to be frozen sections. The ice's edges seemed to be splashing, sheets of it were covered in ripples like flowing water, and bubbles of liquid flowed through pockets of air between ice and stone. Had I had all day, I am sure I would have seen the ice itself flowing. Boulders glazed in a thin sheet of ice or glossed by water spray could only be discerned by touch. All boundaries and edges were twisted, obscured, turned round, refusing to be pinned down.

It was a fine climb, and had I never made that effort, little as it was, I would have missed these icy miracles. As it was, monkey me had a fun detour, crow me was rewarded with dazzling treasures, and my human mind was treated to optical illusions and a lesson on the mutability of boundaries.

03 January, 2010

Coppice Success(ion)

I think I read somewhere about there being European hazelnut coppices known to be 800 years old. Beyond Old French, I'm not sure where the etymology leads, but the practice of cutting back trees that could be counted on to re-sprout is at least as old as tales of the Hydra. (How many of the Hercules stories have to do with the heroism of farm labor? The stable-cleaning labor is not even metaphorical.)

Whether to reinvigorate an old berry bush or to generate a new supply of withe or wattle, cutting back the sprout-prone tree is an act of the wise, though the proliferation happens just as dependably for ignorant modern hackers. Of the few people who even know what a coppice is, only the lunatic fringe maintain one.

Never as exciting as a new field, but crucial for the self-sufficient farm, or even the urban homesteader, a coppice is one of those mundanities whose importance and interest flourish with a little attention.

I inherited a yard with over half a dozen clumps of native beaked hazelnut. A couple have been removed (and in this, I m optimistic--at least one will require repeated abuse for years before giving up). The others represent several life stages of hazel regrowth. Skinny little yearling whips remain flexible: weavable, knottable, plaitable. Another year or so and they make decent stakes. Then kindling and pea-poles, and later on the big tipi poles I use for beans and hops. Using various combinations, I can make hoops to support dahlias and peonies, woven fences or punji sticks to keep the dog out of seeded beds, and on and on, any function needing a straight pole, forked stick, flexible withe,...

The life cycle of a coppice, at least in my garden, is one of attrition. Rising up in resentment against a clear-cut, dozens of sports sprout the following spring, each vigorous and boldly set on reaching the sky. For a year to two, thinning to remove the erratics or to provide some flexible pieces removes enough to let the survivors become thicker than my fingers. Looking at each shoot, I then prune for the eventual shape of the clump: removing cross-branches, thinking about ease of future harvest, removing unwanted shade, and maintaining paths. The results will provide me with sturdy stakes and poles that will eventually return to the soil (for I am horder of my quarter acre's biomass).

As the trees age, the decision is whether to rotate within the clump, or between them. I can selectively take out the older trunks to keep a succession of new, nutful, and reachable ones rising. This will give me a steady supply of various-sized cuttings. Or I can let the whole thing grow to a ripe old age--until I am tired of feeding the squirrels who are the only ones that can get a the nuts, that is--and cut it all to the ground so that a proliferation of small shoots rises the next year. This will give me wood for cooking, and if done at the right time, a good harvest, followed by years of abundant cuttings.

Either way, the succession plays out over the years. Either way, the stubborn hazelnut roots send up their persistent pleas for sun. Either way, that non-descript bush off at the edge, making do in shade too thick for crops, is an important organ in the organism of this yard.

01 January, 2010

A.D. Disorder

With the new year, some people are wondering how to pronounce 2010. Twenty-ten, two-thousand and ten, and so on. The people who in my childhood would pronounce the year Nineteen Hundred and Sixty-five are all gone now, and the odds of Twenty Hundred and Ten look pretty slim. I like the stripped-downness and rhythm of TWO-oh-one-oh, personally, but then I'm an outlier on most matters of popular taste.

More to the point, it's too hard for me to think of 2010 as anything other than an accidental abstraction. There are all sorts of calendars. Chinese, Hebrew, and Mayan Long Count all have us beyond a piddly 2010. Even the Western calendar has been messed with and re-set a few times, and in its present form is not even endorsed by the mish-mash of gods and ancient celebrities whose names appear on its months and days. January 1 of Year 1 on this calendar does not even correspond with any particular significant day in the life of the Nazarene honored by the year count.

Look at A.D., Anno Domini, or as the pious must intone on solemn dates, "The Year of Our Lord." First of all, he never used this calendar, and will probably mark his second arrival on a Hebrew calendar. While Jesus is implied, A.D. literally stands for "The Years of our Domination." History may be written by the victors, but there has to be some higher level of victory to be able to write the calendar. Every time a non-Christian signs a contract with the A.D. date, the crusade wins a small battle. When the world celebrates the New Year on January 1, the global mind becomes occupied territory, part of the western dominion.

Before empires economic and military, before the iron hand of the Church had strewn saints' days on a calendar to be used throughout it's earthly domain, every fiefdom's master was free to make his own calendar, but there was no reason to think it would be used over the mountains. The variety must have been stunning, and it would be interesting to see what systems of reckoning existed.

For the most part, though, calendars of the distant past probably reflected the only truly sound dominions. Linked to the moon's cycle, or the solstice, or the caribou migration, a calendar can claim some empirical basis, some relevance beyond the aspirations of a prophet, or, as is more often the case, the political animals who invoke the prophet.

The further we have moved from time markers anchored in the physical world, the less sense it makes. Why should the new year not be the moment that the days stop getting shorter and start lengthening? (Then the southern hemisphere could have their own new year, offset half a year from ours.) Why should months be 28, 30, or 31 days (not to mention 29 every 4th year), instead of one lunar cycle?

The simplest explanation is that our calendar is a cobbled-together instrument of domination, such as the Bush administration. Like that gang of thieves and torturers, the Christian calendar is not a conspiracy, which suggests some kind of secret agenda. It tells you how many years of domination have passed, and has no term limit. Nobody elected it, but we're all stuck with it. Every time we celebrate the New Year on January 1--or crazier still, structure our economy on a fiscal year starting July 1--we reinforce the dominion of capitalists who use an ancient Judean socialist revolutionary as their shill. We drift from the everlasting life of the tides and moon, the seasons and solstice, and become subject to abstraction.